check box

checklist counterproductivity

Consider for a moment the possibility that checklists just might destroy innovation, block creativity, stymie thinking, roadblock excellence, and basically hurt the customer and employee experience.

Checklists, like screwdrivers, email, insecticide, etc. are simply a tool that’s great for doing the job they were designed to do. And they are dangerous and damaging when used for most anything else.

Where do checklists work great? Keeping us on track for superstandardized but critical tasks. Pilots follow a pre-flight checklist even though they’ve done pre-flight checks hundreds of times because: 1) every step is crucial; and 2) the tasks are so routine it would be easy to start taking shortcuts. Checklists are critically important in these types of situations. Not coincidentally, these are situations where innovation, creativity, etc. are not desirable. We really, really want the pilots to do the exact same process every single time.

Checklists are fantastic for ensuring a minimal standard by removing variation. Fast food places standardize everything to ensure a consistent result are delivered, no matter who is doing the work. You’ll never be wowed, amazed, or delighted by the food, but that’s not the intention.

Where do checklists NOT work? In situations where we want people to experiment, think, create, innovate, and improve, where the purpose is more important than the step, where doing it right is more important than simply getting it done.

Checklists aren’t bad, but like any tool they can be misused. It’s very easy for people to abdicate their results and responsibilities to the checklist. They become reactive order takers, waiting to be told what to do, focused on checking the task off the list instead of thinking through the task. “I did it,” they say, but they rarely say, “I found a way to do it better.”

In my world, I see this when people focus on attending a training, getting the certificate, or earning the degree but put no value on what they learned, how they will apply it, or how it will help them do the job better. I see it when people say “I can’t move this forward because I called but they didn’t answer” instead of “I called, emailed, and tracked them down to get the information I needed.” It’s there when people stick to the letter of the policy, never considering the spirit or situation. It shows up when people cannot tell you the value their job provides, only the tasks it accomplishes.

The problem is that checklists don’t measure quality of work. They don’t measure persistence, adaptability, or caring about a job well done. Checklists treat every customer and every interaction the same. They ensure a minimal standard. They allow people to say “I did it”.

Some days, some situations, some tasks that’s enough. But any job that can be reduced to checklists is a prime candidate to be farmed out, done cheaper, mechanized/computerized, or eliminated. Any person who cannot think beyond the check box is setting themselves up for irrelevance.